• Send page
  • Print page

Afghanistan: polluted water triggers health alert in Kandahar province

04-09-2009 Feature

When several members of one family in the Kajur area of Kandahar province died recently, and over 100 others in the same village fell sick with watery diarrhoea, alarm bells started ringing. On 22 August alone, nearly 40 patients were taken to Mirwais hospital in Kandahar for treatment.

The likely cause of the infection was a polluted kareez, or irrigation channel, that villagers use both as a source of drinking water and to wash their clothes.

When such an incident occurs, especially in conflict areas, prompt action is vital if the infection is to be contained. Acting in its capacity as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC immediately called upon the international military forces, the Afghan National Security Forces and the armed opposition, who were all active in the area, to ensure safe passage for medical personnel and supplies. All sides rapidly agreed.

An emergency clinic was set up near the contaminated area, staffed by local health personnel. Two ICRC medics joined them to provide support.

The ICRC sent Ringer lactate, other intravenous fluids, antibiotics and other medical supplies to the affected area. A few days later, the organization sent in medicines for another 300-400 patients.

A team of ICRC-trained hygiene promoters went to the stricken village within days of the first alert, to conduct hygiene-awareness sessions. The aim was to stop people inadvertently spreading the infection when washing, cooking or doing their laundry. The ICRC also provided supplies of chlorine, soap, oral rehydration salts and jerrycans for storing chlorinated water to help minimize the contamination.

People nominated by the community are to take a crash course in hand pump repair so that the villagers can use their shallow wells, which constitute a safer water source than the irrigation channel.

To date, over a hundred people from the affected village have received treatment. S cores of others living in villages within walking distance are also being treated. As many as 18 people, most of them children, have died since the outbreak first came to light last month.

" The fact that all sides in the conflict agreed so promptly to facilitate safe passage for medics and supplies has helped enormously to keep the situation under control, " commented Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC's operation in Afghanistan. " Even in the midst of war, the sick must be able to get access to health services as quickly as possible. "